Colonial borders and hybrid identities: lessons from the case of Eritrea

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Colonialism left numerous borders in its wake that subsequently became contested, either through legal processes or in all out wars, combinations of both and/or something in-between. These colonial borders have often been discussed as artificial, dividing communities, people or ethnicities that otherwise would belong together.
Such an interpretation of colonial borders, I argue in this paper, overlooks another important aspect of colonial boundaries: their role in creating nations as ‘imagined communities’ who in making reference to such borders can lay claim to a distinct national identity. While such an identity can be exclusionary and trigger conflict, it can also have a much more positive and ultimately hybrid function.
I use the case of Italian colonialism in the Horn of Africa to demonstrate these multiple roles colonial boundaries can occupy, and focus specifically on the creation and contestations of the borders of Eritrea. I will demonstrate how the colonial border has, at different points in time, served as the marker of a distinct national identity; how its contours became a rallying cry for war, a symbol of self-determination, as well as a trigger of inward-looking oppressive policies; but also how the acceptance of that same border under international law can lay the foundations for making it fluid in practice and contribute to cooperation and regional integration.
The paper ultimately argues that the acceptance of borders as markers of identity can be a prerequisite for finding innovative ways to overcome exclusions in the everyday lives of borderland groups. As such, the example of Eritrea could hold wider lessons for addressing postcolonial disputes about borders and boundaries, if institutional arrangements are being put in place that allow fluidity in everyday encounters.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-173
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2020


  • colonialism
  • identity
  • hybridity
  • borderland groups
  • Eritrea

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global Development Institute


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